As I’ve observed in this space before, product managers spend most of their time in the future; the present for them is two years away for the rest of us. So when the coronavirus shut down the 19/20 ski season, it triggered an automatic response in the R&D lobes lodged deep in my noggin: what impact will this have two years down the road?
If I knew the answer to this question with any certainty, I should be running a hedge fund, not scribbling about skiing. But after checking with several of the bellwether players in U.S. market, I have some idea of what’s in store.
Last Season’s Gear Will Be with Us for A Little While
Ski equipment sales were doing very nicely last year until the hammer fell. Demand was strong, so dealers who were accustomed to healthy March and April sales were stocked accordingly. Some of this inventory went away in hair-on-fire sales in March, but a considerable amount is still in the retail pipeline, occupying the wall space normally allocated to new, 2021 models.
Naturally, when retail is clogged with suddenly unsold goods, suppliers see their orders shrivel, in some cases to nothing. If ski manufacturing could react instantly to radically changing market conditions, there might be other options. But the reality is, a lot of the gear being made for this year was already built. It sits waiting in the wings, ready to fill re-orders should the ski trade balloon this winter the way the bike market did this summer.
While it may be a hard fact to appreciate for someone who spent the spring cutting budgets, and harder still for those who were cut, the seasonality of the ski market and when it normally peaks no doubt lessened the pandemic’s impact on both sales and the supply chain. Were March an important month for new product shipments, the impact would have been worse.
The one market segment that may prove immune to coronavirus is backcountry gear. Resort access might be limited by pandemic protocols, but backcountry access is intrinsically limited because there are only so many points of access and conditions aren’t artificially controlled. But the perception is that wide-open spaces are boundless, which means many resort skiers who are neither fit nor outfitted for hiking will want to give backcountry skiing a go.
The allure of the backcountry during the pandemic is sure to entice a fresh surge of interest just when many consumers are trying to limit person-to-person contact. As a collection of gear, it is rife with possibilities for mismatching. It worries me that many well-intentioned consumers will attempt to outfit themselves online. The Internet is the perfect place for the uninformed to get their guidance from the misinformed.
Procuring and preparing all the components that go into a modern Alpine ski requires precise logistics. The pandemic threw a wrench into all that planning.
Finding a Way Forward
Before diving into what might transpire next season, let’s pause to reflect on the season at hand. Every model, new or returning, ordered for delivery this fall was either made by March 13 or all of its constituent parts were. Which means that, a slight surfeit of 2020 product aside, the amount of new models in 2021 and the overall diversity of choice at retail will be perfectly normal.
But “normal” does not mean “equal.” Some parts of the country are in better shape than others, increasing the likelihood of successful implementation of new best practices at ski areas. Some suppliers face disruption due to supply chains with more moving parts that are harder to coordinate due to travel or trade restrictions.
Any 2022 product that was nearing the end of the product development pipeline by March, 2020 will probably make it into the 21/22 line, but any ski or boot with unresolved issues may have been sidelined by Covid-19. Even in an age that has figured out how to streamline new product development, you still have to test what you make. For ski gear, this means you need not just snow, but lifts and conditions suited to the task at hand.
There are no serious ski makers who will produce a new, high-end ski without extensive, detailed on-snow testing. You can build prototypes fairly easily; it’s the testing that’s a bitch.
While every brand had to make painful cuts this year, those with an ingrained dedication to new product development found ways to move forward. It only takes one lift, one snowfield and a tightly knit factory test team to move a product through its final stages. While everyone had to trim their sails and re-focus on core activities, there will still be new products introduced this season for next year’s collections. As is often the case when any market contracts, those who continue to invest have an edge over those who curb their ambitions.
The Limits of Self-Guided Research
Since limiting person-to-person contact is the order of the day, many skiers searching for new gear will turn to the online swamp for edification. While I’m all for skiers using the Internet for information – I’d be dead in the water without them – I’d be even more enthusiastic if I were confident that said curious skiers were competent at flying solo through the Net. My years of experience patrolling the sales floor of specialty retailers make me skeptical.
Of course, thousands of skiers have been doing their homework on the ski and boot markets on the Internet for years, a history which provides ample evidence of the perils of self-guided research. An illustrative vignette: A couple stands before the boot wall. She has clutched in her hand The List, the models she’d targeted for her beau to try on. I ask her gently if she’d share her research with me so I could better serve her and her escort, who remained a by and large inert subject throughout this exchange.
The first boot she named was so hilariously off base that I couldn’t stop myself from laughing out loud. I tried to recover quickly, apologized abjectly, and begged her for number two. Again, this bright, inquisitive, clearly well-educated woman was out in left field. This time I kept my composure and gently guided the pair over to a bench where I could begin with a clean slate.
It turned out the reason the lady had settled on choice number one is that the copy she read alleged that the boot was “warm and comfortable.” Oh. My. God. This revelation pains me even now, a few years after the fact. What did she expect brochure copy to say? It’s inherently pandering palaver meant to make whatever product it’s applied to sound like the Second Coming. Its purpose is to stun and capture as many gullible minds as possible. No matter how targeted a ski or boot may be, somewhere in the text that accompanies its picture will be the assurance that it is insanely versatile, capable of anything, really.
The Internet Boundary
Just as angry Tweeters should never hit “Send,” Internet gear shoppers should avoid tapping, “Add to Cart.” Even if you do flawless research that you feel has arrived at the best solution, you still haven’t had another trained person access the situation. (Please don’t tell me you’ll be wisely guided by some sage in the customer service phone platoon.) Remember, even at his peak Tiger Woods had a coach. In fact, all the best skiers in the world have coaches. You too, need a coach, someone who knows the right questions to ask and has a clear vision of how it all works together.
This is the critical role played by specialty retailers. After you’ve done your research, make an appointment – a new reality in the pandemic era – and get your real needs assessed in person. Protocols are in place throughout the specialty channel to make your gear selection and fitting process safe and dare I say, enjoyable.
If you can’t resist the allure of purchasing online, at least consummate the sale on a specialty retailer’s website. Many specialty shops have superb, informative and easy to navigate sites with the same selection you’ll find at warehouses.
In the spirit of enlightened self-interest, allow me to suggest that your best resource for ski research is right in front of you. If you’re looking at one of last year’s models, Realskiers.com maintains an archive of all 2020 ski reviews (and 2019, 2018, 2017, etc.). If you’re looking for the latest and greatest, there are over 100 2021 model reviews, plus another 21 women’s reviews penned by some of the best female skiers on the planet.
What differentiates specialty shops from mass merchants is their ability to truly tailor a solution for each skier. What differentiates Realskiers.com from the herd of hapless imitators is the former product developer whose prose you plumb each week. I’ve not only skied very ski; I know how every ski is made and in most cases the people who make and market it. I’ve been an instructor and a coach. I fit boots on real skiers nearly every week of the season. I’ve been a product manager for major brands, and written the technical manuals and certification programs for three different binding manufacturers. I get it.
The point of this brief display of self-adulation is that one of the member benefits of Realskiers.com is direct, one-on-one consultation with yours truly. In a season riddled with doubt, one quandary you need not suffer is insecurity about your choice of skis.
What Happens Next
What does your peerless seer foresee for the immediate future? Will we even have a ski season?
Yes, Dear Readers, there will be a ski season. The demand to recreate is there. (Just look at what happened in the bike market.) There’s no safer place to be than outdoors where it’s windy, which describes every ski area that isn’t indoors.
The glut of 2020 product that set some pockets the industry on its ear will disappear like morning fog. At steep discounts, the most coveted models of last year will be snapped up as fast as a ham hock in a pool of piranhas. Brands with deep roots in R&D will forge a way forward, seizing the opportunities down markets typically present.
Now is not the time for core skiers to change their buying habits chasing a deal on the Internet. Stick with the people who’ve helped you get this far. If your favorite specialty dealer has been good for you, now is the time to show your gratitude.
Our time outdoors may be more precious than ever if resorts have to ration attendance. It’s a time to treasure every run, to savor every unique descent. Don’t shortchange yourself by making a serious buying mistake. The ski market has never been more diverse and potentially more confusing. You don’t have to confront this challenge alone. I’m here for you.